Album Review

​Vijay Iyer - Break Stuff

Released February 10, 2015
Dylan Sonderman
​I first heard Vijay Iyer's name in a college survey course on the history of jazz music. In 2013, Iyer was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called "Genius Grant", and this stirred up controversy among some musicians and fans. Some were angry about the use of the term "genius" to describe Iyer, while others were no doubt jealous of the roughly $600,000 dollars that comes along with the prize. To avoid delving into the complex issues and pretentious vernacular surrounding the issue, let's just say I was intrigued by the differences in people's opinions and wanted to hear the music for myself. It's not for me to say whether he deserved the award or not, but damn, I think his new 2015 album, Break Stuff, is killer!

The trio consists of Iyer in the role of pianist and composer, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Marcus Gilmore. This is the group's third album together. According to Iyer, the album title refers to breaks in songs, silence between the notes and references breakbeats, breakdowns, and break dancing. Overall, the 12-song collection features amazing musicianship and interesting compositions.

Break Stuff opens with "Starlings", featuring a sparse, mellow intro which quickly evolves into a flowing melodic groove. Space is utilized very well, which begins the trend for the rest of the album. The second track, "Chorale", builds to a more driving and busy section, displaying masterful senses of rhythm and melody. Both tracks remain relatively simple compared to some of the later songs, but they set the mood nicely.

"Diptych" culminates in an impressive climax. "Hood" blends the dissonant and the driving. "Mystery Woman" features an evocative bass solo from Stephan Crump. All of these tracks grabbed my attention more on repeat listens. But the first time through, the song that won me over is "Taking Flight". Though the song starts out slow, Marcus Gilmore eventually lays down some incredibly funky drumming. It's cool to hear a novel approach to breakbeat-influenced playing style used in a jazz context. The title track (which is definitely not a Limp Bizkit cover) basically functions as a centerpiece of the album. All three musicians shine with stellar performances. I also think this song is pretty representative of the album's style.

In addition to the original compositions, there are three cover tunes on Break Stuff. The trio's take on the Thelonius Monk song "Work" was very enjoyable for me. Iyer really nails the quirky and wandering sound that Monk's playing seemed to embody. The pianist also takes on "Blood Count" by Billy Strayhorn without accompaniment from bass or drums. The spacious arrangement is one of the most pensive moments on the album, and it's really quite beautiful. It honestly reminds me of classical music more than jazz. And by far the busiest and most technical of the three covers, the trio presents a unique take on the song "Countdown" by John Coltrane. All three covers are quite strong and enhance the vibe of the album.

While it has several upbeat moments, the overall tone of Break Stuff remains deeply introspective. This can be a bit heavy and brooding for listeners looking for something lighter. Also, for as much as I enjoyed it, the raw piano-bass-drum trio format may not engage some listeners, despite the rich complexity of the lush compositions. I really liked hearing all of the versatile nuances of just these three people and their chosen voices, but perhaps this setup could seem too one-dimensional to someone else.

And for whatever reason, instrumental music often does not seem to hold the same appeal to today's mass audiences. I think it's because the album requires more of active listen. People are so often in a rush. If you throw this record on as background music, it will all blend together. But the more attention you pay to the album, the more brilliant moments and intriguing aspects you are likely to notice. It's worth your time, I promise.
If you like modern jazz, forward-thinking music, or well-crafted displays of virtuosic instrumental prowess, you'll probably find something to enjoy on Break Stuff. I found quite a lot.